At a time when many cooperatives are facing uncertainty around annual meetings, ARC Media has designed an online tool to help members vote.
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Andy Johns: How can your cooperative handle voting online for your annual meeting? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. I’m your host, Andy Johns. And I’m joined today by Andy Neidert, who is the co-founder and managing partner of ARC Media and now the Vice President of Business Development and Strategy at Pioneer Utility Resources. Andy, thanks for joining me.
Andy Neidert: Well, thanks for having me.
Andy Johns: You guys are over there [based] in Missouri working with electric cooperatives in Missouri, Oklahoma, Ohio, all over the place. If you don’t mind, tell us a little bit about ARC media.
Andy Neidert: Sure, I’ll try to keep this as condensed as possible, but essentially my first gig out of college was working for my father, who was working with a couple of statewide associations of co-ops. He was helping them do statewide radio buys, writing some press releases, working on some legislative affairs topics, and how to communicate best with the members. And I’d say close to six years ago, Barry Hart — he was the statewide association’s CEO in Missouri — approached me about being able to communicate a little bit quicker, being more nimble with communications. When things did happen that they needed to communicate to members at the end of the line, how could we best use digital platforms to do so? And so we kind of regrouped a little bit and reeled in and came back to Barry with the idea of managing his statewide association’s social media platforms.
Andy Neidert: And then that kind of branched out relatively quickly to working with his member cooperatives in the state of Missouri. And, you know, we were a two-man shop. It was my father and myself. And we realized quickly that we needed to bring in the expert on social media, and we did that. Gus Wagner joined us as a partner. We kind of quickly grew to 20 people, working in 16 states, and serving electric cooperatives — I think, roughly 150 electric cooperatives at this point. Something really exciting that we did was we started hiring overseas military spouses. Melissa Shaw had become a partner with us, and she is a military spouse. She brought up the idea of hiring military spouses that grew up in small-town America that were communicators to monitor social media feeds for our electric co-op clients. And one of them was in South Korea, for instance, on a military base. And she could monitor these platforms her all day, which was our all night. So we introduced a 24-hour a day, seven days a week program where we knew what members were saying, what members were interested in, and what they were talking about on social media. And so, anyways, long story short, we ended up with a staff of roughly 20, and Pioneer Utility Resources approached us, I’d say, about six months ago, about combining forces, and they actually acquired ARC media. ARC Media will still go on like it always has, but now we have the resources of a little bit larger outfit that had been in the co-op world for 50+ years. And maybe the coolest thing about that is that ARC media is now a co-op serving co-ops. So that’s kind of the short story. I hope that makes sense.
Andy Johns: That’s great. And I had heard that story before about the military spouses, and that’s such a good idea for so many different reasons. But I’m glad you brought that up because I love that story. I love that idea.
Andy Neidert: Yeah. If nothing else, our people overseas are great. They provide something that I think is pretty unique. And at the end of the day, and I know that we’re all proud to be able to hire military spouses, and we think it’s important. For a long time, they had a hard time keeping a job because they might move from base to base, and now they can have a laptop and a cell phone provided by us and work for a utility in the middle of Wyoming. You know, it’s been great.
Andy Johns: Very cool. So with social media, you guys had kind of carved out a niche of being digital experts for the electric co-op industry, which is kind of where this tool came from that I wanted to discuss on this podcast, because I think right now — I don’t know if you want to take credit for foreseeing all of this coming with the world that we’re living in right now — but you guys had a tool ready to deploy that’s really helping cooperatives when it comes to voting at their annual meetings on a virtual basis.
Andy Neidert: Yeah. So, no, I don’t want to take credit for our current COVID circumstance. But, you know, I feel like I need to give some credit where credit is due. And really, the current CEO in Missouri, Caleb Jones, was the one who surveyed his managers. And we’re based in Missouri, so we have a tight relationship there.
Andy Johns: With the statewide association?
Andy Neidert: That’s correct. He’s the new CEO at the Missouri statewide association. And I’ve always felt it was important to — more than try and take a product to our clients — to keep our ears open and understand what do the co-ops need as far as communications and digital platforms? And it was Caleb Jones that came and said, “Hey, we surveyed our managers, and there is some interest. And at some point, you know, maybe not this year or next, but at some state, we’re going to have to be able to offer members at the end of the line the ability to go online and place their vote, whether it be for a director election or a bylaw change. You know, we’ve got members that, you know, might be handicapped and might not be able to make it to the annual meeting, but need to have the ability to vote.” So that was October of last year. And we worked pretty hard. We obviously wanted to make sure the kinks are worked out. We had a product, I’d say January. We worked again with the statewide association in Missouri to run some trials and tests and figure out where we needed to add or what we needed to change. And so that’s kind of where it all came about. And then the whole COVID thing happened and interest obviously kind of ballooned. So we’re excited. We have a handful of co-ops. In fact, the first co-op that is going to use the tool will go live on June 1st. So we’re just a few days away from the portal being used and live for the first time.
Andy Johns: Excellent. I’m sure it’ll be great to see that take flight when that gets going. Talk us through how it works a little bit. So it’s a portal that folks are accessing online, right?
Andy Neidert: Yes. So a co-op that decides that they want to offer this to their members would get a unique URL. And, you know, it’s recvotingportal.com/(whatever your co-op is). Then it would be branded to the co-op that is using it. So if it was Webster Electric, it would have Webster Electric’s brand associated with it. And then we would work with the co-op to do a little bit of promoting digitally, mainly through social platforms, because people tend to click a link that is available to them more often than actually typing that link in that might come in the paper mail. But we also put the link on the co-ops website, so a member has access to it there. And then it’s really up to the co-op to kind of outline what they see as their calendar. So I would say the typical scenario would be that forty-five days prior, maybe forty days prior to an annual meeting, we would take the portal live and do some promoting of it. The co-op, at that point, would have uploaded their member number information to us so that we can have that information in the portal. The portal would be live to vote up until the co-op said, OK, we would like to shut it down. So, you know, for instance, the portal could be live for 30 days. During that 30-day timeframe, any member could go out and place their votes. That information would all be kept and secured. And then we would shut the portal down when the co-op told us, okay, we’d like to turn it off. And a few days later, the annual meeting would be held, and the co-op would have the voting portal information to combine with their actual in-person votes. And then something else I should probably mention is that the portal does offer the option if you were to go online and log in, your first option is to go ahead and place your vote for a director or bylaw change or whatever it might be, and you would navigate to that. The other option is to receive a paper ballot. So also for members that aren’t comfortable voting online, but can’t go to the annual meeting, they can request a paper ballot, and it will be mailed out to them. It’s at the co-ops discretion, whether it’s postage paid to come back. I would say in most cases, it would be. But they would then receive a ballot. It would come back. It would be hands-off from the co-op, and we would then input those votes into the system, so the co-op would have all of the information at the annual meeting.
Andy Johns: Excellent. And now the original way that it was set up, the system would also interface with in-person voting. Obviously, right now with what folks are looking at, with the possibility of virtual meetings or changing things up because of the coronavirus, that’s different. But originally, the way it was set up is it would interface with live day of the meeting voting as well.
Andy Neidert: That’s correct. And I think that’s probably where we end up. But Chris Massman, who is a Member Services Director at the statewide association of Missouri, worked with us, and we put an iPad, kind of an app, together that was working in coordination with this portal. So to go back on that timeframe, if you did choose to use the iPads, you would have an online voting portal open for 30 days or however many days you chose. We would shut that portal down. The portal would be talking to the iPads the whole time. You could, if you wished, have one iPad in your office. So in the lobby of a co-op, you know, members could come in during that timeframe, and they could place their vote. Again, iPads and the portal are talking to each other. And then you could take the iPads — which depending on the size of your co-ops, some co-ops would need three, some co-ops might need ten — you could take those iPads to your annual meeting, and once the voting was done on the iPad, essentially in real-time, you would know the results of whatever your members were voting on.
Andy Johns: Perfect. I hadn’t thought about that in the lobby, but to have it for that 45-day window out there where anybody was coming in there could vote. They’d be a great option for a lot of folks. It’s a cool idea.
Andy Neidert: Sure, and that kind of got shut down when lobbies were shutting down because of COVID. But, you know, I like to think positively, and I think at some point, we’ll be past that and the lobbies will be open. And when people come in to pay their bill, you know, if they wanted to, they’d have the option to walk over to an iPad, take two minutes, login, and make their vote.
Andy Johns: Sure, Now, understanding that this is two marketing and communication guys talking, and we could get over our heads pretty quick on the technical side of things, but this is obviously more secure than just some anonymous Facebook poll or something. I mean, y’all are doing quite a few things there to verify who the folks are and make sure that everything is clear and traceable and all aboveboard for the co-ops and everything.
Andy Neidert: Sure. So, you know, we talk to a lot of co-op managers as we went through the process of building out the portal. And that was probably, without a doubt, that rose to the top of importance. What we’re doing is the information is encrypted when we receive it and stays encrypted. Then you’re verified as a member in three ways to get into the portal. And those three ways can change. If a co-op manager asks for four ways, we can do that. Or ask for a different question for verification, we can do that as well. No two co-ops that we work for are alike, so we make a lot of changes on the fly. But the way it’s set up now, is members last name, their actual house number, so their address number, and then their member number. So they provide those three pieces of information and their email address. And then when they click, “I want to vote,” we send them an email, and they get a verification code in the email. And they plug the verification code in, not unlike most things that you sign-up for online. At that point, they put that verification code in, and they are able to place their vote or request a paper about ballot, either/or. If they request the paper ballot, we have their address. So we’re only going to send that paper ballot to the address that’s associated with that member number.
Andy Neidert: If they go ahead and place a vote, then the voting information is uploaded and matched right alongside with the member information that we have so that the co-op will know here’s how many votes were made for who. And we move on down the road. And then when we’re done with the whole process, that member number and name that we received from the co-op, is obviously deleted from our system. And if the co-op chooses to use the portal again next year, they would send us new information for two reasons. Number one, we have no interest in holding that information, and we would need an updated member list because those things change.
Andy Johns: Right. But I imagine, too, this may be a way — I know we’re always working with folks in the electric and the telecom industries that we work with — on getting more active email addresses from folks that they could use for communications and other things. I guess, in a lot of cases, the cooperative is already going to have the email address, but this may be another tool to help collect email addresses that they could use for marketing and communications later on.
Andy Neidert: Yeah, it’s an interesting topic you touched on, Andy. I agree. But, you know, I think it’s something that we like to communicate back to the cooperative that is our client, “Hey, if you do want to collect those email addresses and use them for some future use, we’re going to put on the portal, ‘Hey, do you mind if we contact you at a later date using this email address?’” And if they don’t, then we could use that, and we could provide that information back to the co-op. And in some cases, I understand that a co-op manager is leery and wants to protect their members at the end of the line and doesn’t want to communicate with them in a way that they don’t wish. And we could just leave that option off. And those email addresses are just simply used to verify the person, and then they’re deleted when we’re finished with them. So, yeah, you know, that option is on the table, and it’s obviously not on the table if that co-op is not interested. I think we could talk for days about all the options that could be added to the portal, and the answer would be yes to all of them. But I feel like too, we probably ought to like, you know, walk before we run a little bit. Get the member comfortable going to a website and placing a vote. And then, you know, explore what other things we could do here.
Andy Johns: Yeah. Seems like there would be a lot of opportunities, and it’s good that you guys can customize that on a case by case basis for sure. Well, there are a lot of co-ops that find themselves looking ahead at the rest of 2020 and even into 2021 with a lot of uncertainty when it comes to annual meetings and voting, all of these things they’re having to sort out. Taking a step back, looking at the bigger picture, what advice would you have for the managers or the communications folks at those cooperatives that are struggling with what to do and trying to figure out what the right answer might be for their annual meeting this year?
Andy Neidert: Sure. You know, I think in 2020, there are some tools at our fingertips that we sometimes overlook. We get really comfortable with mailing surveys to our members. And my fear really is that when we mail those surveys, we’re going to get information and data back from members that are most interested in getting paper mail. And we still have those members that are still out there. There’s no doubt about it. But there’s also a segment of the membership, which I believe is growing, that exists digitally. You know, I pay my bills online. I would bet that you do as well. And you’re going to reach me a whole lot more effectively, digitally or on social media. Things like Facebook, I would encourage a co-op to use a Facebook survey and ask the members on their Facebook page, “Hey, would you be interested in online voting at your co-op? If so, you know, how would you see that working most effectively?” And you could ask two or three questions before you lose their interest. And it might be interesting what you find, that members might come back and say, “Hey, I would love to be able to go to an online voting portal and place my vote because our service territory is not dense. You know, we’re in Wyoming or we’re in the Dakotas, and it’s a two-hour drive for me to get to the annual meeting.” That’s difficult. Or, “the annual meeting is when I’m at work, and I don’t want to take off work.” Or like I mentioned before, “I’m handicapped. And it’s tough for me to get somewhere physically, but I’d love to place a vote for my co-op.” So I think the co-ops ought to use those digital tools. You know, if they have a Facebook page, it’s an easy go-to. Go survey your members on your Facebook page. Put something on your website. You know, the traffic on these co-ops'[ websites fluctuates, but when it’s time to pay the bill, a lot of those digital [dwellers], they go pay their bill on the co-op website. Put a little blurb, put a little survey on your website saying, “Hey, would you be interested in placing your annual meeting vote online?” And I think you’ll find out real quick whether there’s interest or not.
Andy Johns: Absolutely, sometimes the best way to find something out about folks is just to ask them. We did a webinar last week about marketing segmentation, and one of the things that we tell people to do. You know, you can buy all sorts of data layers and everything from data vendors or, you know, get into, on the broadband side, a lot of network data and all that. But anybody, even if you’re not going to spend the money on the data, you can always just ask. You know, put a survey out or an email out or social media question out. Just ask people what they want or how they’re using the system, that sort of thing. And you’d be surprised what you can find out just with something simple like that.
Andy Neidert: Yeah, I completely agree. And I also think, you know, if you were moving forward with an in-person annual meeting later in 2020, I don’t think there would be anything wrong with asking your members that were at your meeting, “how many of you would participate in an online voting portal?”
Andy Johns: Absolutely. So the last thing for you, right now, if somebody is listening, you guys have worked exclusively on the electric side of things. But if I’m correct, so this tool is available for the electric folks right now. But I’m leaving the door open that if somebody has a telecommunications cooperative that needs to vote, maybe it’ll work for them as well.
Andy Neidert: Yeah. You know, I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t. I think that the nature of our business to this point, outside of speaking at a few telecommunications conferences, has been electric cooperatives. But we could cater this to really any co-ops that had a membership vote, and we would love to do so.
Andy Johns: Excellent. Great. Well, if anybody is listening and they have more questions for you, it’s reachthearc.com is the web address, correct?
Andy Neidert: That’s correct. You know, we would have loved to have been able to buy arcmedia.com, but somewhere out in the web world already stole it from us. And we are reachthearc.com.
Andy Johns: Excellent. Well, I appreciate the help. Thank you for joining me, Andy.
Andy Neidert: Hey, I appreciate you asking me, and I can’t thank you enough. We’re excited about getting the word out about the portal.
Andy Johns: Excellent. He is Andy Neidert. He is the co-founder and managing partner of ARC Media. And now the Vice President of Business Development and Strategy at Pioneer Utility Resources. I’m your host, Andy Johns with WordSouth. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.